How to Talk About the Huge Attraction to Teen Suicide Drama: A Response to 13 Reasons Why

teens binge watching

If you knew your child was engrossed in a chronicle of a schoolgirl’s suicide, or a game that ends in taking your own life, how would you respond? Be ready to answer, because this is the world we live in.

We live in a world where children as young as 10 are binge-watching 13 Reasons Why. This series dramatizes a teenage girl’s suicide, through a high school boy’s encounters with cassette tape recordings she made before killing herself. I recently shared my own binge-watching experience of this show on Facebook. The show’s enormous popularity is shocking… and yet not! It’s not a surprise to see strong reactions published in Rolling Stone, CNN, and many mental health media outlets.

Yes, we live in a world where children are seeing the Blue Whale Challenge—a social media phenomenon targeted at teens, encouraging participants to harm themselves daily for 50 days, tag friends to encourage them to play, and ultimately commit suicide while documenting everything.

We live in a world where suicide is glamorized as a way out of overwhelming life events, instead of a tragic symptom of depression and mental illness. I’m sad and frustrated by the casualness and normalcy surrounding the topic of suicide, but it’s happening. Social media is making it so much harder for parents and loved ones to know what is going on and intervene. Sadly, this month marked yet another tragic incident of teen suicide in Northern Virginia at Woodson High School—a school already struck by so many of these tragedies in years past.

Parents, therapists and educators: pretending this isn’t happening is not an option. Teen suicide is happening! We must be aware and help children and young adults to realize there are other ways to cope with being bullied, experiencing trauma at home or in school, and even being sexually assaulted. Suicide is not a way out!

Why 13 Reasons Why Is More Dangerous as a Show than a Book

I had read the New York Times bestselling book, 13 Reasons Why about 10 years ago. I thought the book was well written and thought provoking as an adult reader. But now this story is dramatically brought to life via Netflix—and I watched it as our children and teens are watching it—binging on one episode right after another. Scene after scene depicts bullying, rape, adolescent drinking and drug use, sexual assault, sexual harassment, self-harming behaviors, and in the final episode, you watch as the main character, Hannah, slits her wrists.

Equally upsetting is the entertainment value—the “fun teenage spin” the show gives to something as devastating as untreated mental illness. Since you’re watching the story unfold in flashbacks, Hannah almost seems to get more popular after killing herself.

Also tragically, the school counselor in the show is portrayed as incompetent. He as much tells Hannah to suck it up—which I imagine would make any qualified, capable, caring counselor feel betrayed. It made me feel that way, along with SO sad!

The central characters are sophomores and juniors in high school, 14 to 15 years old. Though this material is not appropriate for a younger audience, it is created for young audiences. Viewership is wildly popular among children at least 12 and up, although, I’ve heard reports that ten-year-olds are watching it, too.

If you are a parent or caregiver, I have an emotionally tough question to ask:

Do you want to be like Hannah’s parents, and find your child dead in a bathtub?

I urge you, even implore you to be aware of what’s going on with your child in this culture where suicide and self-harm are glamorized, made into games, and elevated to viral popularity by social media! At minimum, if your child has any existing mental health issues, I plead with you — please pay attention.

What Should You Do About 13 Reasons Why Or Shows Like It?

Since 13 Reasons Why emerged, I have been getting phone calls every day from parents asking how to deal with this. Here are my recommendations:

1) You need to (binge-) watch it first in its entirety—even if you don’t want to.

I’m sorry, parents. Yes, this is tough to watch! The most intense episodes are towards the end. But you have to watch it if your children have seen it.

Children are binge-watching this show (which I never recommend because excess media exposure heightens anxiety), and you need to experience it the way they will. Be one step ahead of them, if you can. Watch it before they do. Then, watch it again with your child. If your child has already seen it, you need to watch it immediately yourself and discuss it with them.

2) Be aware and pay attention to your children’s thoughts and feelings

Awareness, knowledge and communication are the best tools in suicide prevention. It’s your job to use these tools in your family relationships.

  • Look for evidence of self-harming behavior or drug use. Address these issues with compassion and understanding. For more information, I suggest these articles: Understanding Self-Harming Behavior: Healing with Self-Care and Compassion, and How to Talk With Your Adolescent About Their Drug or Alcohol Use. Please see the special section of helpful resources I strongly recommend, at the end of this article.
  • Get technologically smarter than your children. It’s going to be hard, but you must be more tech-savvy than your children. You should absolutely monitor and have access to their social media profiles and their cell phones.
  • Talk about what your children do when they feel overwhelmed, or have strong emotions they don’t know how to manage or stabilize. When children don’t know how to regulate their emotions and don’t know that they’ll bounce back, it can feel like there’s no way out. The teens in 13 Reasons Why are having trouble regulating their emotions. Your children need to understand that feeling emotion is normal—and that sadness peaks but then it subsides (and if it doesn’t, there’s help). Children look to their parents as models of emotional self-regulation. Working to have a healthy relationship with your own emotions and with your child is important for so many reasons. Dr. Dan Siegel’s book, The Whole-Brain Child, gives great information about helping children emotionally regulate.
  • Show empathy—never tell them to suck it up. Telling children, “Trust me, it will get better” doesn’t accomplish anything other than your child not trusting you to help emotionally hold their feelings. Remember when you were a teenager? It was hard, right? Now, imagine being a teenager in a land of social media! Work hard to empathize with your children. Be present, and allow them to be authentic and vulnerable. Even though it may not seem like a big deal to you—it will feel like a big deal to them. In the show, Hannah felt hopeless and reached out for help, desperate for someone to notice her pain and help her hold that and manage it. Tragically, the school counselor didn’t do that.
  • Familiarize yourself with Suicide Prevention: 10 Questions and Answers.
  • Know the difference between sadness and depression.

To my fellow therapists and counselors—let’s ENSURE that the profession of counseling is leaps-and-bounds better than what you see in this show. Please know how to handle issues of depression, suicidality and self-harm, because no matter the age of your clientele, people struggling with trauma will walk in your door and you must know how to handle it!

No matter the trauma or turmoil, there is a way forward—and it’s not suicide. There are therapists out there, like me, who will help families face and feel grounded in their struggles and pain, and work with them to navigate mental health challenges! Need help to find a good therapist? Read this.

More Resources

Organizations

Articles

13 Reasons Why in the News

From Common Sense Education: If you’re looking for ideas on how to respond to the series, a host of organizations have resources to help parents, educators, and students process the show’s difficult topics:

  • 5 Conversations to Have with Your Teens After “13 Reasons Why” (Common Sense Media)
  • Common Sense Media review of 13 Reasons Why
  • 13 Reasons Why Considerations for Educators (National Association of School Psychologists)
  • 13 Reasons Why Talking Points (JED and SAVE)
  • Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide
  • RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network)

Thank you for reading and sharing this post.